Adding shelters may reduce people sleeping in the street, but it doesn't end homelessness
When Gregor Robertson declared he would run for mayor in 2008, he used Vancouver's homelessness issue as his stated motivation for entering civic politics. In a speech to supporters he said, "We need to end homelessness. Parts of our city are in a state of emergency. We need a firm, realistic plan to eliminate homelessness...not continuing to invest and rely on shelters as the solution."
Robertson remarked that he could "no longer stand by in good conscience" while city hall -as he saw it - fiddled on the homelessness problem.
Just weeks after his announcement, volunteers enlisted by Metro Vancouver roamed the streets and alleys to count how many homeless people lived across our region. In March 2008, the City of Vancouver had 1,580 homeless.
Before that count, under the leadership of mayor Sam Sullivan and minister of housing and social services Rich Coleman, the city and province of B.C. signed memos of understanding that secured thousands of new units of social and supportive housing. From April 2008 to March 2011, 1,457 of those units were brought online in Vancouver alone and occupied by formerly homeless individuals.
The preliminary results of the March 2011 homeless count were released May 24, and despite the emphasis placed upon this issue by Vancouver's mayor, the number of homeless in our city actually went up.
According to Metro Vancouver's latest count, 1,605 people are listed as homeless in the City of Vancouver, or approximately two-per-cent higher than in 2008. Incredibly, Gregor Robertson chalked the statistics up as a success. How, you ask? By citing the reduction in the number of "street" homeless.
What is street homelessness anyway?
A search of the City of Vancouver website, with its hundreds of thousands of reports dating back decades, shows that the expression "street homelessness" was rarely used before the last election. Street homeless are defined as "unsheltered," or more succinctly they are people "sleeping outside."
When Vision Vancouver took office a new reliance on shelters began as a way to solve the problem of homelessness. Of course, this is precisely the approach that Gregor Robertson criticized when he announced his mayoral candidacy.
At a cost of over $2,000 per person per month, the shelter program put a higher emphasis on publicly funding temporary solutions over permanent. While shelters make the problem of homelessness less visible, it's certainly no less acute.
As mayoral candidate, Robertson reserved his greatest criticism for the NPA government's move to reduce social housing in the Olympic Village from 66 per cent to 20 per cent. Yet, after the election he reduced nonmarket housing to six per cent in the Olympic Village, with very few of these units being true social housing that would address homelessness.
Throughout his 2008 campaign voters heard Robertson repeatedly promise to "end homelessness." But then the adjective "street" crept into speeches and, finally, the Vision Vancouver platform document. You could blame citizens for not noticing the new language, or you could ask if voters were misled by Vision's fine print. Ask almost anyone who voted in 2008, did Gregor Robertson promise to end homelessness, or expand shelters?
The Vision Vancouver website posted this promise after the election: "Mayor Gregor Robertson has set 2015 as the goal for ending homelessness in Vancouver." Today, that same page reads "...2015 as the goal for ending street homelessness."
With a few keystrokes Vision Vancouver wiped away their commitment to end homelessness in our city, and made the expansion of temporary shelters their first priority.
While some might forgive Robertson for changing his strategy after getting elected, Vision stubbornly claim they've been consistent with the shelter promise all along.
So why did Vision Vancouver change their website?
The party's web wordsmithing is indication that Gregor Robertson never really intended to end homelessness by 2015.
Rather, he only seeks to make Vancouver's homeless problem less visible. While few of us like to see people living on our streets, it's well understood that the matter cannot be overcome by hiding it.
The lesson for voters next time is to ask, when it comes to addressing homelessness are you promising longterm solutions, or merely temporary fixes?
- Originally published in the Vancouver Sun on June 3, 2011.
- Post by Mike Klassen. Mike is a city council candidate for the Vancouver Non-Partisan Association (NPA). If you're an elected official or candidate seeking a nomination and want to write about urban issues, please send your 450-500 word submission to CityCaucus@gmail.com.